On June 18 1994, New York was invaded by thousands of Irish football fanatics for the World Cup opener against Italy.
President Bill Clinton’s decision to grant Gerry Adamsa visa earlier in the year had propelled the peace process forward, and Irish America was playing a crucial role ensuring all actors to the conflict were engaged in honest negotiations to entrench a genuine Peace Process.
By the time Jackie Charlton’s men went 1-0 up against Italy with a sublime goal from Ray Houghton, the mood on both sides of the Atlantic was nothing short of euphoric.
It was a mood shared by the 15 men watching the match in the Heights Bar, a tiny pub run by the O’Toole family in the Co Down village of Loughinisland, 21 miles south of Belfast. Loughinisland had made it through the previous 25 years relatively unscathed.
Like many rural communities,Catholics and Protestants lived peacefully side by side; none of its 600 residents had had the horrors of the conflict visited to their door. All that changed shortly after 10pm.
The second half of the match had just kicked off when two men wearing boiler suits and balaclavas and armed with an automatic rifle burst into the bar. Thirty rounds were fired. Six innocent men were killed and five injured.
All the victims were Catholic and included one of the oldest people to be killed during the Troubles – Barney Green, an 87 year old retired farmer. Loyalist paramilitary group the UVF claimed responsibility.
The massacre sparked international condemnation. The Queen of England sent a message of condolence to the families, as did the Pope and President Bill Clinton.
The RUC assured the victims’ families that no stone would be left unturned in their efforts to catch the killers. The assured promises of the RUCseemed to be backed up with action and evidence.
Within hours of the atrocity, the getaway car, a red Honda Triumph Acclaim was found 5 miles away intact, a remarkable mistake by the murderers, which presented theRUC with a forensic treasure of evidential opportunity. Within weeks, the VZ58 automatic rifle was also found intact, alongside a bag containing the boilers suits, gloves and balaclavas worn by the murderers, indeed the RUC were in possession of 177 physical exhibits.
It seemed that they simply needed to make the arrests (a letter was written by the girlfriend of one of the gang advising as to exactly who was involved), make the forensic connections and brings charges before the court.
But far from securing and preserving evidence to build a case, the RUC were destroying evidence as they came across it, and resolutely refusing to practice the most elementary principles of crime scene investigation. The getaway car was destroyed by the RUC within months. Suspects were arrested but no DNA or fingerprints were taken.
To this day, no one has ever been charged with the Loughinisland murders.
In 2005 the Loughinisland families instructed my practice to engage with the PSNI and latterly to represent them in a complaint to the Police Ombudsman. What they have learned throughout this process has shocked them.
In addition to the destruction of evidence, it has transpired, that the getaway car was supplied to the murder gang by an RUCinformer codenamed Mechanic, and further that the car was driven on the night by another informer, who has convictions for rape, paedophilia and drugs importations.
He was released from prison early by exercise of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, requiring the signature of a Secretary of State. Indeed it has been reported that 3 of the 4 people in the getaway car were RUC informers.
Nearly twenty years on, the families’ search for justice continues. But their search is no longer just about who killed their loved ones; it has become a search for the truth against a murky backdrop of state collusion, cover-ups and complicity.
The families are currently engaged in civil litigation against the PSNI.
The families are also suing the British Ministry of Defense in relation to the origins of the weapon used in the massacre – a tangled thread that ultimately leads to deals made between South African arms dealers and a British army agent.
The Loughinisland families are committed to bringing the facts of their case to as wide an audience as possible to shame the UK government into accepting responsibility for its actions. The families attended New York and Washington DC in March.
In June the Irish football team wore black armbands in the European Championship match against Italy in what was a remarkable demonstration of the power of sport to provide the opportunity for a mass memorial for their loved ones.
They have proactively engaged with media outlets not previously spoken to, such as The Guardian in London who provided a front page platform in mid October, as well as this noble newspaper.
Perhaps most significantly the families are co-operating with a significant documentary film with a Belfast production company on a major theatrical documentary to be released in time for the 20th anniversary of the massacre.